What is your religion?
This is a question that people ask you directly in Sri Lanka irrespective of the fact that it’s a sensitive area you tread in to. I have often found it impertinent. This is because my mother is a Buddhist and my father a roman catholic. I was not baptized as a child so my mother decided to put down Buddhist in my birth certificate but neither of them raised me to believe or practice any faith because they decided they had more important things to do. The more diplomatic approach in my opinion is to re-phrase it and ask instead “What are your religious views? If you do not mind me asking?” This question too has to be asked in a very kind tone with a welcoming smile and a slight shrug of the shoulders. One must not blatantly mouth it out ‘like a punk’!
My father’s family are all born Catholics. My grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins on my father’s side of the family are raised to think that not going to church on Sundays is a sin. In Sinhalese they call it ‘deva paapayak’. Since me and my younger sister are Buddhists they call us ‘a-deva lamai’ but they never discriminate they just make random jokes because we do not even pray in temples or know that many ‘gaathas’. However I know a few catholic prayers by heart and I pray during my exams for selfish reasons. My father’s family never discriminates based on religion apart from jokes and neither do my mother’s family because they have accepted we are wierdos. However the fact that we do not properly practice a religion has been of great interested to a few members from both sides of the family to try to convert us into either one of those religions.
My father’s uncle for example who is an English teacher offers us the bible and tells us that there is good English in the bible and reading it will improve ours and that’s how he learned good English. Most members from my father’s side are tri-lingual including my father and they say that prayer to god gives them blessings to be intellectually competent at many things. This I thought was a very subtle and clever way of approaching. My mother’s brother-in law living in Australia is well read in Theravada Buddhism and when he comes to Sri Lanka he donates huge amounts of money to temples. He likes to take us on trips to ‘Neelambe’- a reclusive sort of meditation center where there are lectures on Buddhism in English. These visits to ‘Neelambe’ has been serene and indeed enlightening because Neelambe is a picturesque area and mostly frequented by foreigners from different countries and speaking to them has been an amazing experience. This is another subtle and clever way of approaching us.
Neither of those efforts had worked up to date for me to get baptized and start living the catholic way or to practice the Buddhist religion which involves the religious rituals. I would much rather go to ‘Madu church’ or temples to admire the architecture and paintings.
Why do I think it’s an impertinent question then?
To answer this I must narrate a rough patch that we went through with regard to our school education. We both went to private international schools but at some point my parents decided to put us into a convent to follow the local syllabus in English medium and this did not work because the Sister had told my father that she will accept us if we were baptized. So we had to go the local church for a while and the father at the church was thrilled and got my father to pay the electricity bills and help out the church with monetary needs. I was about twelve and overheard my mother saying that it is not right to baptize the children just to put them into some bloody school clearly when we were not interested in going to church. We faked stomach aches and stuff just to stay at home and watch ‘spell-binders’ on Rupavahini which aired at the exact time church masses started.
Many years later I learned two important lessons from that experience:
1. Religion is monetized to drain your pockets
2. Religion is used to make you feel like you are something ‘less’
When somebody asks me what my religion is I tell them I do not practice a religion but I respect all religions. This is because I cannot identify myself with the terminologies of ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ which is just plain confusing. When I explained this to a domestic one day who comes to help out in housework she told me that it is absolutely necessary to have a religion. “What if your husband is religious? How will you raise your children?” I asked her “Do I have to have a religion to be a good parent?” after all my parents raised me just fine. My parents happen to be both doctors who simply do not have the time to go to temples and churches and she conveniently puts the blame on them that it is their fault. I am apparently in trouble that I will find it difficult to find a partner in marriage. This made me feel that society puts the fear of rejection in you for not believing in a religion. This has made me feel ostracized by my own society because both highly educated and non-educated people identify themselves with religion.
As a law student one of my life goals is to be familiar with Buddhist and Islamic jurisprudence and other religious faiths just to be an open-minded and enlightened person as opposed to any of those narrow interest parties that I have come across in my life. This is because I am crazy enough to believe that at least one person on the ‘reformist path’ through a proper approach to religious education can change societal attitudes towards religion. The ISIS, Bodu bala Sena and even the Nazis had at some point perverted religious ideology and promulgates their activities in extreme forms. Religion has become an impertinent question which begs an answer through proper education.